Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Swerving from the Straight and Narrow: Greenblatt's Fictional Medieval Period

Although Stephen Greenblatt published his blockbuster The Swerve in 2011, a recent book review in the Los Angeles Review of Books ( has ignited great debate on the merits of the book. The Modern Language Association's myopic decision to validate the book by awarding it a prize has poured further fuel on that debate (see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Blog [] and the various Twitter exchanges cited). For me, the debate centres not on the book's focus on Poggio's discovery of Lucretius, nor on the many odd and misconceived statements sprinkled throughout, but on the grand narrative that emerges--a grand narrative that trumpets the Renaissance partly through its insistent derogation and misrepresentation of the Medieval.

Quite why scholars like Greenblatt feel the need to valorise their own literary and historical period of specialisation by dismissing earlier or later centuries or movements or demarcated temporal units (like 'Middle Ages' or 'Late Antiquity') is a mystery to me. It is entirely disrespectful to write off whole swathes of time, of cultural production, of literary composition, of personal volition, of daily living, as Greenblatt does. So, when Greenblatt claims that the Renaissance effectively threw off the 'constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body...' (p. 9), he provides us with a sequence of superficial imaginings that might yet prove damaging to readers who, assured by the prize-winningness of this volume, assume they are being told something other than fiction.

From a text technological perspective, Greenblatt shows a total disregard for textual production, transmission and reception in the period between the Fall of Rome and the finding of classical nuggets in the monastic libraries of the late Medieval period. He forgets that the real Middle Ages provided the world with universities and the full flourishing of scholasticism; with the twelfth-century Renaissance, which like its later iteration, re-discovered classical texts protected by the cultural bastions of organised religion. He forgets that history is never the story of homogeneity, of stasis, of universal darkness. He forgets that Renaissance writers, like Southwell, Herbert, Donne and Sidney valued a world after this one. He forgets that testifying for the individual are the hundreds of lyrical voices calling from the thousands of Medieval books that survive, despite the best destructive efforts of later cultural vandals. Perhaps Greenblatt doesn't forget; perhaps he never knew.

But if he never knew, he should not deride the cultural landscape of a thousand years--a culture which is rich and deep and worth studying. And one would hope that scholars, of all people, would know better than to try and make their own speciality seem 'better' or more worthwhile simply by rubbishing others' areas of expertise.

Friday, November 30, 2012


All TEXT is is potential. That's evident from images of medieval manuscripts where the notable letters, the flourished initials, have been left unfilled. It's evident from the spaces left by the marginal annotators who never came to engage with the main work filling the central writing grid. It's evident from the neglected texts, the literary orphans, that excite no critic to interpret them.

All text is, then, is potential.

London, British Library, Additional 37517, f. 135v

Friday, October 26, 2012

Filling space

TEXT is art, words, symbols, code. It is the object, the artefact, that contains the communication. Manuscript books or fragments, in their entirety, are examples of TEXT and the object of study (obviously) of Text Technologies. More provocatively, perhaps, bodies carrying tattoos--whether Maori tattoo, or celebritized longitude/latitude patterns--might be examples of TEXT; in this case, code which signifies either something particular to the person or, more broadly to a social group. To fill the space of the skin with tattoo is to participate in textual production that was, until recently, considered subversive. The intelligibility of tattoo depends on the wearer's decision about how public they want their body text to be. Some seem semantically transparent:

And others require significant interpretative work on the part of the onlooker:

Akin to tattoo in its intentional subversiveness is graffiti. Hidden beneath the swirls and curls of the tagged letters is the name of the graffiti artist ('artist'?), exclusive to those in the know:

And here, again, space is filled by a deliberately obfuscatory message, a text technology where the entire context provides textness; where the precise location and substrate are key to the type of communication being imparted; and where it's usually singularly important not to be able to read the text.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

When is a Text not a Text?

We've been discussing 'Text' again in class, as part of 'Text Technologies: A History'. So, we pondered when is a Text not a Text? When it's anything except words, which are always 'text'. But we'll only allow words as long as the words are definable as such--as words. That is, they cannot be random markings or even structured-but-uninterpreted markings, since markings that have no discernible meaning cannot be 'text', because they don't mean anything and 'text' must have meaning. (One should surely argue here that meaning is not a one-way street; I can produce text with meaning to me, even if no one else has a clue what I'm talking about. And besides, meaning is always subjective.) Or, ok, not 'words' per se, but symbols; symbols constitute 'text'. Such a definition permits us to include ideographs or pictographs as 'text', except these are, to all intents and purposes, images, and we don't want to allow images as 'text'. Or do we? If something can be read, if something is open to interpretation in a social act of communicative intent, then presumably it is text, even if that thing being read has nothing verbal in it or around it; it is simply a photograph or picture.

Friday, August 31, 2012

One-eyed monsters in the desert

Morongo Hotel and Spa, Cabazon, CA (actually in the desert)

This is not an advertisement advocating the benefits of the desert casino and spa. On the contrary, on our drive from Tallahassee, FL to Stanford, CA, this building was the most monstrous sight we encountered. In terms of the landscape as text--the thread of this and the previous blog--this hideous spectacle might be read as an attempt to conquer the desert that is ultimately testimony to the human's capacity to spoil. It's much more complicated than this, though, since the Morongo band of Native Americans, whose land this is, are the owners of this casino resort. In addition, the construction company claims the resort was 'inspired by the forces of nature and is intended to bring a piece of paradise to the desert' ( Still, reminiscent of ancient monsters, many of whose characteristics reappear through the imagination of Russell T. Davies in Dr Who and other sci-fi series, from the I-10 road, this hotel bestrides its desert setting like a concrete cyclops, or better still, medieval Blemmyae.

Blemmyae from British Library manuscripts (see

Blemmyae, acephalous monsters with their faces on their chests, were strange and frightening, living with other alien creatures in distant lands. In the Old English Wonders of the East in London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv (the Beowulf-manuscript), these chest-faced beings are said to be eight feet tall and eight feet wide and living on an island with dragons that are 150 feet long. These overlarge monsters, dominating their landscape, are the stuff of fantasy--until one comes across the Morongo reality on the I-10, near Palm Springs.

One can hardly talk about medieval monsters without reference to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's 'Monster Culture (Seven Theses)', published in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 3-25. He comments that 'The habitations of the monsters (Africa, Scandinavia, America, Venus, the Delta Quadrant--whatever land is sufficiently distant to be exoticized) are more than dark regions of uncertain danger: they are also realms of happy fantasy, horizons of liberation'. In the case of Morongo, it seems that a place of uncertainty--the desert--is transformed into a locus amoenus, a pleasant place, by the construction of the monstrous: a huge watch-tower with its glass eye guarding over the landscape, attempting, perhaps, to suppress, tame it, change its inhospitable nature. I find the one-eyed building sinister and ineffably ugly, but it brings money to the Reservation, allowing the Morongo band of Native Americans to make viable economic use of the parcel of land they were left with.

And yet.

Yet, in a larger sense, Casino Morongo fails to dominate. It's certainly startling as it rears up on the side of the I-10 (rightly winning the I-10 journey prize of 'most hideous'); but, as the photograph taken by Roy Randall on Flickr so ably demonstrates, this concrete carbuncle is nothing in comparison to the landscape it seeks to cultivate:

Casino Morongo from the mountains (

From a distance, the Casino becomes a speck, just another trace of passers-through. From this distance, the Casino Hotel is little more obvious, indeed, than the petroglyphs, carved millennia ago, in the Coyote Hole rocks near Joshua Tree, earlier marks left by those for whom this wilderness was home.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Landscape as Text

As a family (husband, two children, two dogs, one cat), we very recently drove across America, so that I could take up my new post as Professor of English at Stanford University, south of San Francisco. Our 2,600 mile journey along the I-10 and up the I-5 from Tallahassee, Florida to Stanford took five days, my husband and I each driving a car. I drove the thirteen-year old Honda CRV, adding considerably to its 111,000 mileage and I had the pleasure of my son's company, together with that of the two dogs.

As we made our way cross-country, taking in West Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California along the way, I became deeply conscious of the ways in which we can read the landscape, both through its natural splendour and through the ways in which it has been colonised by modern American society. I'm sure it's very last century to think of everything as potentially interpretable--that is, potential text--but still, as I say, I was struck by what I could read about this vast country, simply by passing through it. So, this blog and the next few will focus on the things we saw and how these might signify something or other. I'll do this through a sequence of selected superlatives, beginning with the weirdest sight (of many weird sights).

Weirdest of Weird Sights

Driving through Eastern Arizona from New Mexico to Tuscon was a sequence of unpredictabilities: skirting desert thunderstorms, but nevertheless being rained upon; high-ish mountain transforming into bouldered panoramas; and soldier cacti standing in battalions on hillsides. Together, these created a visual smorsgabord. It quickly became our favourite few hours in the cars and there'll be more on these sights later. Leaving Tucson, though, we saw the oddest thing; so strange was it that it demanded a rapid set of double-takes, and shrieks of 'Get a photo! Get a photo!' On our right on the westbound I-10, a few miles outside Tucson, was a six-foot (?) cardboard baby sitting in the desert with a cardboard tractor. Like some kind of bizarre mirage, this strange vision of a child at play was utterly incongruous, totally out of context, a doodle literally marginal to the road that demanded to be interpreted, but provided no clues about its purpose.

Unfortunately, the photograph we took really can't capture the weirdness of this prelapsarian baby scene:

There is no explicatory sign, no interpretative board. It suggested vulnerability: a warning, perhaps, that in the desert, the helpless will die? Or was it a billboard for some advertiser, where the text had falled into disrepair? We wondered for some time what this could possibly intimate. When I mentioned it to my husband, who had been driving right in front of us, he confessed he had not seen it at all (eyes on the road, rather than gazing around: good driving). Yet, of course, the board baby is easily found through a Google search using the terms 'giant baby I-10 Tucson'. On this site (, I discovered the baby is not six-feet tall; rather, it is TWENTY feet tall. The lack of any proportion or perspective is such a great trick enhanced by the desert setting. Moreover, it is not some strange, dilapidated act of a tractor company; it is the work of the mural artist, John Cerney, completed in 1998 (see I might add that in the image on Cerney's website, you can clearly see a now-missing farmer running away from the baby. The work was originally intended to act as a marker for an educational farm situated just off the interstate. The farm was closed in 2004, so now the marker has nothing to mark; the referent has no reference; signifier without signified. Half a sign. Instead of indicating anything, then, the big baby just sits there, surprising interstate motorists and begging observant passers-by to try and describe what on earth they think they've just seen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fragmenting the Past through Dispersing Collections of Books

Joseph Mendham, a nineteenth-century Anglican writer, 'controversialist' and book-collector, has been in the news today, as the subject, happily for him, of controversy. It was announced that the UK's Law Society, which owns his extant collection of books and manuscripts, has decided to sell off some of the more valuable items in their possession, despite an agreement apparently made with the original donor to keep the collection intact. The collection is housed at Canterbury Cathedral, with its close links to the University of Kent. Commenting on this sequence of events, Dr Alixe Bovey, at the University of Kent, said in a press statement that 'The imminent removal of the most valuable items will cause irreparable damage to the coherence and richness of this historic collection' ( Bovey later evocatively observed on her Twitter account that the 'appreciative noises' made by the Sotheby's employees sent to collect the choicest books were 'wincingly excruciating'. 

Can the deliberate dispersal of an historic collection of textual materials, carefully and focusedly assembled by an individual or corporate collector, be justified? The Law Society says it needs the money, and will hold off auction until November 1, but why sell off bits of the collection like this? I met a man in 2006 (let's call him Tim, because that was, indeed, his name), who, on hearing that I work with manuscripts, told me proudly that he and a partner in Tallahassee spent a great deal of their time buying up large, intact collections of nineteenth-century US Civil War documents that they managed to procure at bargain prices. (So far, so good.) They did this with the sole intention of dismembering these collections to maximise their profit. (Not so good.) I asked him if they at least provided evidence of the provenance of these documents, so that, should fortune favour the old, the collection might one day be reassembled. Tim had no idea what I meant; he had never given such an historically-aware approach the least thought.


Profiteering in this way by deliberately fragmenting historical evidence of the passions and pursuits of earlier collectors impoverishes our human record. It's that simple. I would liken it to the more explicit lack of intellectual integrity of the St Petersburg Antiquarian Book-Dealer I spoke to once, who sells manuscript leaves on EBay for significant financial gain. Selling manuscript leaves is no crime, but when these come from a whole manuscript sliced into the smallest possible sellable part, it should be. At best, it's unethical; at worst, cultural vandalism. Societies, book-sellers, EBay scourers should at the very least have the decency to seek profit by maintaining the intactness of a cogent collection or a single manuscript, or they are actively destroying what they ironically seek to benefit from.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You have to hand it to 'text'

A book like Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 17. 1, unlike the St Cuthbert Gospel, recently acquired for the nation by the British Library ( could hardly claim to be hand-held technology. It is large and unwieldy, weighing at least 20lbs. Also known as the Eadwine Psalter (Google it for lots of images of the eponymous 'prince of scribes' who might have designed the volume) or the Canterbury Psalter, it is one of the most magnificent manuscripts in a century of unparalleled biblio-magnificence. It is half a metre tall and comprises one animal skin per opening and its size means that the reader really has to stand to be able to take in the fullness of the book's folios. If the reader is sitting while examining the volume, most of the upper part of the folio is effectively unreadable. So, the book is not easily used, not easily accessible, and certainly not portable in the way the Cuthbert Gospel is. These manuscripts are the medieval equivalents, in physical terms, of the modern paperback (the little Gospel) and the now non-existent print version of the Oxford English Dictionary (the large Psalter).

And yet, while looking closely at the Eadwine Psalter a couple of weeks ago, even while noting the absence of browsers' marks or the interventions of engaged readers, it became clear to me that to an extent this volume was hand-held--time and time again. Moreover, those hands and their literal imprints are very revealingly and entirely haptically presented on every recto of every folio through the cloth-like nature of the membrane in these handled areas, rather than the stiffer composition of the less handled parts of the leaf. What looks like blankness in the expanse of margin at the foot of the folio (well, blank except for the modern foliation) is anything but, then.

Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 17. 1, folio 107r

And here, of course, the work of art historians like Jennifer Borland and Kathryn Rudy ('Violence on Vellum: Saint Margaret’s Transgressive Body and Its Audience', in Representing Medieval Genders and Sexualities in Europe: Construction, Transformation, and Subversion, 600–1530, eds. Elizabeth L’Estrange and Alison More [Ashgate, 2011] and 'Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer', Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, Vol. 2, 1 [2010], respectively) helps us to interpret the evidence for how users interacted with books, often very physically, leaving dirt or erasure behind them through their touching of the book.

But less than dirt or rubbing, I am especially interested in those spaces that appear to be blank, particularly when a folio is viewed as a digital image. Here, it is often the voluminousness, the heft, of a book's materiality that is lost to sight. Within this 'voluminousness', the light and shade, the ebb and flow, the rise and fall of the physical leaf is critical to understanding how the book was received by readers, users, casual passers-through. This is felt most obviously in the fabric of the book and is an integral part of the book's textness, its plenitext.

A second example demonstrates this perfectly and illustrates that even the largest of books can be thought of as hand-held technology. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 2, the substantial Bury Bible, produced in the first half of the twelfth century and now divided into three huge volumes, measures 522mm x 360mm. It was a display volume intended among other things to demonstrate the wealth and authority of the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds. But its de luxe quality did not preclude it from being read; its status might only have added to the moment that a reader had with it, for in this book, every verso of every folio bears the physical testimony of use, even if it's difficult to detect. So intense is the turning of the folio that on some versos, the touch of the successive users' hands has left visible proof of their presence through the abrasion of layers of the membrane:

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 2, folio 20v (from the Parker on the Web site:

Blankness here, then, is anything but, and what looks like a stain in the digital image is, in fact, the erasure caused by countless page turnings. Thus, while the manuscript itself may be the antithesis of hand-held technology, to turn the folio is, even so, to hold the hands of readers from centuries past. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Campus ArchiTEXTure

Today, in the midst of a thunderous downpour, we examined Florida State University's Dodd Hall as an example of text:

Built in the late 1920s, this 'gothic collegiate' building now houses Classics, Religion and Philosophy, together with the FSU Heritage Museum. Inscribed over the doorway in Gothic-style letter-forms is an unattributed quotation:

It's clear, then, from these public words that this building belongs--ideologically, architecturally, and contextually--to an institution of learning. But is it (a) Text? We had a long discussion about the building's textness and its dominant features: its cathedral-like appearance, indicating the reverence with which we should approach these buildings (and their being off-bounds to those who don't belong?); its red brick, FSU-style, corporate identity. It is also a building that, like a chapter of a book, belongs to something much larger than itself: one instance of its co-textual (or syntagmatic) relationship with other 'legacy' buildings on campus is its place as #8 on the list of Legacy Walk things-to-see. These are the markers and buildings that remind onlookers and participants of the history of FSU and those who have passed-through its doors (

Of most concern in reading this building as Text, though, was its intentionality. If the architect built this building as a library, and wasn't concerned with some larger meaning (no 'intentionality'), then does meaning inhere in it at all? Is it a text if Text = meaning? Well, rather like the adaptive reuse of medieval buildings in modern contexts, its meaning changes, and the onus of textness is on the reader (back to Barthes!), rather than the object itself. The text means something different to each participant; that is, text is necessarily subjective. As such, this building we pass on most days takes on a textual complexity that is performative, eventful, and unstable. We might wonder, then, if all Text, at all times, is ultimately unstable?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Textual Dimensions: Space and Time

To quote an old favourite, 'a text is not a line of words releasing a single "theological" meaning (the "message of the Author-God") but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash' (Roland Barthes, 'The Death of the Author', Image, Music Text, p. 146 [here:]). Barthes' article, and a great deal of subsequent agonizing by critics, places the author in the background and the onus on the reader. I don't agree with Barthes's view, but this quotation alone provides us with a theory that can work well for determining the nature of every text, including those where authorship is the key element of textness (such as Dickinson, Shakespeare, and even Kurt Cobain's Journal); the theory is that of Text as 'multi-dimensional space'. We already know a text 'is not a line of words'; it is anything where there is an intention of meaningful communication. Within the space of Text, conceived of as cogently as possible, all components of Text exist simultaneously.

3-D Wireframe Image

The multi-dimensional space of textual fulfilment is a literal and metaphorical space: literal, in the sense that one might gather up every instantiation of an individual set of text (all editions, all performances, all the epitextual material belonging, for example, to Moby Dick) into one space; metaphorical, because this space can incorporate all of a text's potential for interpretation, including the tricky issue of what we've been--rather dead-endingly--calling 'aura' (after Benjamin). Perhaps if we imagined this space as a pyramid

3D reflected pyramid

we'd be able to hierarchise our textual components, too, so that the dominant textual element could rise to the pinnacle. For some magazines, it might be their ephemeral nature; their lack of authorship per se; their time-boundedness. For oral text, it would be the transience or paratextuality or immediacy. For Dickinson, it would be 'AUTHORity'. 

What Barthes's 'multi-dimensional space' permits, even though this wasn't his intention, presumably, is the conceptualisation of textual fulfilment. Hovering within this space is Benjamin's (impossible?) aura, though this is negligible in some texts' case, and absolutely dominant in others. Perhaps 'aura' can be replaced with 'textual celebrity', 'textual notoriety': simply another element of textness, appended to Context or Epitext?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Textual Sifting

Textual Fulfilment. Using most of Peter Barry's textual categories--cotext, context, multitext, epitext, peritext, and so on (see Barry, 'Rethinking Textuality in Literary Studies Today', Literature Compass 7. 11 [November 2010], pp. 999-1008 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2010.00758.x])--it is possible to analyse TEXT as the superordinate of a semantic field. Barry's terms, like the branches of a family tree, emerge from the superordinate and create a set of methods for approaching textual fulfilment. But, like further offspring, categories of 'textness'--the written word, the spoken word, the image-text, the digital text--can either be grouped together under each of Barry's sets, or, can form whole new branches of their own. In an act of Divergent Thinking, my students have been engaged in designing mind-maps for text that permit a glance into the potential for interpreting text in all its fullness.  Here's a snippet of one:

Textual Priorities. What is also becoming clear through detailed analysis is that different authors+text can be allied, because of particular shared elements of 'textness' that emerge from close study of them. It's probably obvious, but Shakespeare and Walt Whitman (apparently sometimes called 'America's Shakespeare', which is a bit sad: why can't he just be America's Whitman?) share the numinous textual element of 'authorial fetishization'. This might, perhaps, be akin to visceral 'aura', something that we have been trying, unsuccessfully, to pin down, though Kendall O'Brien's 'experience' is an astute attempt at definition.

Textual Sifting. Of most significance with these authors, and others who are similarly a permanent part of the canon, it is their being THE author that, in a sense, surpasses even their literary oeuvres: oeuvres with all the attendant problems of 'what is the text' of Leaves of Grass or The Merchant of Venice? In these case, and others like them--Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton perhaps, Dickinson--the overwhelming priority in terms of 'textness' is the cult of the author. Clearly, in the case of Beowulf, the cult of the author means the cult of 'Anonymous', and I think that while we'd all like to know the date of that poem, no one wants to know who might feasibly be called the author/s, because part of its cult is its unknowability, its lack of compositional and authorial context. Not all works share the priority of Authorship (or Intentionality), though: more of those next time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Vive un texte!

Thirty years ago, the writer Michel Butor, in ‘The Origin of the Text’ (World Literature Today 56.2 [1982], 207-15), pondered how a text comes into the world: ‘the origin of the text is what you can find in the text itself’, he says; and ‘the text comes from itself’; and ‘the text is never completely finished… It has to go on’ (207). From this perspective, perhaps rather alarmingly, a text has no beginning and no end. 

EU Consilium Glossary

How then can we ever hope to access ‘the text’?

The answer surely is that there is no ‘the text’; there is only ‘a text’, an ‘ensemble’ (Butor, 208) of symbols that is provided with unique meaning by its assemblers/readers/viewers/interveners/participants. The text functions by virtue of its own past and present: its debt to other texts, its materiality, the way in which it is received, handled and understood. Likewise, the participant in the production of a text—the user—brings their own past and present to their interpretation of a text.

As for the future of a text: ‘It is a changing of death into life; but that transformation will never be finished’ (Butor, 214).

Long live text!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Origin of Texts

The OED, s.v. 'origin', describes this as

the act or fact of beginning, or of springing from something; beginning of existence with reference to source or cause; rise or first manifestation

Under this same entry, 1b., the citations include the following from 1867: J. McCosh Method Divine Govt. (ed. 9) iii. ii. 377, 'The origin of evil, like every other beginning, shrouds itself in darkness'. Perhaps this 'darkness' about the origin of everything is most apt to discussions of textual genesis.

Seemingly conversely, though, the OED's meaning 2a, reveals 'origin' as

a. That from which anything originates, or is derived; source of being or existence; starting point. Now freq. in pl.

Trying to untangle these two proximate definitions of 'origin' is headache-inducing, and yet, in textual studies, the 'origin' can take on an, arguably, extraordinary and disproportionate significance. For textual critics, especially those trained in the classics or early literatures, determining the 'origin', the Ur-text, the fons is the goal of the editor. Interesting debates in the 1990s emerged among the traditional philologists (see, for example, the essays in D. G. Scragg and P. E. Szarmach, eds., Editing Old English [Brewer, 1994]) and the new philologists (P. Zumthor [Towards a Medieval Poetics], B. Cerquiglini [In Praise of the Variant] Stephen Nicholls [The New Philology]). The issue at stake was how to present the text. At the risk of oversimplifying complex arguments, it is the debate about whether to present a reconstructed, hypothetical proto-text that best illustrates the author's intended text (see the rationale of the Piers Plowman Project here: or whether to privilege the variant, or at least given the variant its long overdue sustained consideration (also part of the remit of the Piers Plowman venture). For many editors, treading a via media between these seemed preferable; for others, the argument for presenting simulacra, perhaps with en-face transcription, was a key desideratum. 

Turn-the-Page Display in the foyer of the British Library

At this point, and with very little real effect visible in the pbook or ebook presentation of scholarly critical editions, the debate has tailed off and has transformed into a debate about the nature of digital editing: how best to present a word-based or word- and image-based text on screen, utilising all the dynamic interface potential of the digital realm. Now, it is possible to have a manuscript version of a text, complete with a myriad of tools for interpreting and accessing not only that text, but all the co-texts almost simultaneously. None of this helps solve the issue of 'origin', though; how to access or present the 'original'. This is particularly the case when, as is most common in fact, the 'original' does not exist. Chaucer's original Wife of Bath's Tale does not survive, any more than an original version of Hamlet does. If 'origin' is the 'beginning of existence' or 'that from which anything originates', then authorial intentionality is surely the only origin for Text. Anything other than this is a remake, a version. Or is everything subsequent to the mental act an 'original' of its own? This might certainly permit us to account for the uniqueness of all text, particularly by virtue of its peculiar materiality. 

Perhaps more provocatively and fruitfully, though, we should go along with Cerquiglini and state with certainty that 'There is no such thing as originality'. We can say, then, that all texts are rendered equal and as such deserve individual study, sustained examination and a recognition of their own intrinsic value.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The unstable text

In an interview widely reported today, the American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, reveals his preference for the pbook (the physical book) as opposed to the ebook. He comments: "Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that’s reassuring. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough” ( Here, Franzen seems to suggest that the literary afficionado functions best through the printed book, particularly because of its place in time and place (close to how Walter Benjamin describes 'aura'). But, contrary to Franzen's belief in the fragility and impermanence of the digital medium, Matt Kirschenbaum, and others, have concluded that the digital--in each individual instantiation of a 'text'--is as permanent or 'fixed', as 'fixable', as anything printed (see Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination [MIT Press, 2007]).

This may well, at the level of the byte, say, be true, but it is also to assume, as Franzen does here, that print itself is unchanging, irrevocably the same each time the printed book is encountered. This cannot be true, particularly with regard to a book's materiality which inevitably degrades, or is altered through being handled, or collects dust. For the 'text' itself (which I would regard as inseparable from the artefact's materiality)--widely understood as the words or images on the page--these change, of course. They change from imprint to imprint and from edition to edition, even if only through an updated paratext, a newly designed cover, the emendation of an earlier error, or, on a grander scale, multiple editorial interventions.

The distinction between the digital and the physical artefact ('analogue') as a distinction between the transient and the fixed, the impermanent and the stable, the immaterial and the material is not a useful one. And, just a reminder for all the post-1500 readers: it is through a detailed understanding of manuscript culture that one might better understand the nature of TEXT in its broadest sense. It is there that the idea of the eventful text is most easily investigated and analysed and there that the efforts to make human endeavour permanent can most clearly and poignantly be seen.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Text beyond price

An examination of heterotextuality proves that not all texts are born equal. Looking at all manner of texts--from 'Exit' signs to chalk graffiti, a sorority house to a bulletin board--it's clear that what links these texts is the intention to communicate; other attributes are variable. The building, the sorority house with its colonial architecture and Greek identifier, is replete with institutional authority, its academic credentials emblazoned across its facade; but it also shares a larger, national and ideological function, allied to all other sorority houses of its type (and, every sorority house, of course). The bulletin board, outside a room housing a writing centre, is also institutionally authorised, both reflecting and contributing to the university's identity and purpose. It also shares an important feature in common with the chalk graffiti (wittily and exclusively referencing the BBC Sherlock Holmes series); namely, its transience and ephemeral nature. In this, even though the bulletin board functions as an institutional sign like the 'Exit' notice screwed into the ceiling, the latter is made different through its permanence and legal mandate. All of these texts can be examined through their intentionality, materiality and functionality (as I've just done), but it's the extra (literally 'outside') variable--their value, 'aura', authenticity--that adds the essential feature of Text. How are these examples to be valued? Clearly very different values come into play: the financial (real estate prices), the legal (how to get out of the building in the case of a fire), the aesthetic (the graffiti, the sorority house. For some, the aesthetic appeal of graffiti is non-existent.). What about the ineffability of value, though? So-called 'sentimental value'? The visceral response to a worn-out old notebook? This becomes Text-beyond-price. This is the core of Text that can never be reproduced in any other medium.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Invisible Aspect of Text

Walter Benjamin's 'Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' is, rightly, one of the most important articles in the modern era, particularly for its aesthetic approach to Text. If Text is interpretable through its intentionality, materiality and functionality (more capacious descriptions than the alternative triad--'production, transmission and reception'), the missing element, and often the most significant element, is 'aura'. 'Aura' is notoriously difficult to pin down, but might, variously, be thought of as 'authenticity', 'originality', 'value', 'appeal', 'authority'. For Benjamin, loss of 'aura' emerges from reproduction, though the democratisation of art, for him, had great benefits. The essence of Text, then, is its irremovable intent, material, and function, but always weighted by the variable of 'aura'.

Here, from sixty minutes' hard work, are the two classroom boards with tweetable reductions of Benjamin's fundamental message, completed by the teams of my 'What is (a) Text' Senior Seminar.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Edifice of Letters

Is it possible to conceive of Text holistically? By 'Text' I mean the textual artefact, the thing requiring interpretation. If we can conceive of a house as a whole entity, despite its many components and multiple rooms, is it not reasonable to think of a textual artefact as a single edifice of interpretability: an edifice of letters/symbols/readings? Through various optical illusions, Matej Krén has created a building made out of books (; extending that sculpture into a metaphor to envisage a single edifice constructed from a Text's component parts might allow us to investigate the full potential of individual textness. A case in point would be the well-known St Alban's Psalter, which is digitally available here (, but only in a dismembered, folio-by-folio, click-by click viewing. This presentation is much better than no images, of course, but it encourages the breaking apart of the volume into its constituent parts--either the page-at-a-time technique (and no physical book ever functioned a page at a time) or through the verbal text or through the illustrative text (which in the case of this Psalter are often inseparable). The book becomes the patchy reconstitution of its parts and not the sum of its parts: its materiality, its textual history, its paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships, its context of production, and so forth. If a book were a building, a unified whole understood as such, one would enter and walk through it, seeing all elements as part of the singular textual object replete with its own history and intertextuality, made more complex by the intellectual information of its particular inhabitant. Could such a thing ever work? If it could, we would have a new Text: the whole Text, and, I might argue, the only genuinely interpretful Text.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Text Text Text

What is (a) Text? TEXT is a semantic field of extraordinary range; boundariless; exceptionally difficult to define. The OED provides a narrow initial definition as its 1a) 'The wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written'. Multiple other definitions refine this, particularly with regard to semantic specialisation: 'text' as 'scripture', the 'very words' of 'holy scripture', but it's clear that none of these definitions is sufficient to account for textness in a holistic sense. By this, I mean contemplating 'text' as a whole, without subdividing it into components like 'word', 'image', 'margin'. How can we talk about The Ellesmere Chaucer as a text (an object replete with intentionality, materiality and functionality) using the narrowness of this definition? How can we discuss the codex's meaning, including its value as a contemporary witness to Chaucer's work? ('Meaning' itself is circuitously defined by the OED (2.) as 'The sense or signification of a word, sentence, etc. a. Of language, a sentence, word, text, etc.: signification, sense.') 

TEXT might most usefully include all of the areas of investigation incorporated into Peter Barry's Literature in Contexts ( For Barry, these integral elements of textuality include epitextuality, peritextuality, metatextuality, cotextuality, and so forth, all of which, combined provide 'total textuality'. We might think, then, of the Ellesmere Chaucer, of the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life', of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as 'pantexts' or 'omnitext' (a term coined by Taylor Field), each a rich repository of interpretative potential yielded by its creation, transmission and reception and enhanced by its value in the larger world.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Twit Twit To Who?

What an interesting and perplexing medium Twitter is. For the everyday humdrum tweets (few of which I subscribe to), I'm sure it's random and sporadically amusing; for celebrity updates, no doubt it feeds the frenzy of interest in mundane comings and goings (frequently screenshotted into newspaper articles); for news reports, it's a useful tool, but much of what's reported barely merits attention.

For academic goings-on, it's a weird new world, pertinently discussed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his blog today: What's fascinating is how much of a driver Twitter is, or might become, rather than being a reporting or proclamatory tool. The debate I've been having with Jeffrey concerns issues of intellectual property and Twitter. Is it ethical to tweet almost point-by-point a conference paper that you're listening to? It would be, if you've asked permission of the speaker, presumably. And while you wouldn't ask permission to take notes in a notebook or a MacBook, you would ask for permission to record digitally or to video. So tweeting is like recording, rather than note-taking? And it's like recording because it's a public or publishable form, infinitely replicable through endless repeating or retweeting? If that's the case--that speakers can expect to be published even as they speak--surely that might change the nature of a conference paper? Jeffrey's blog discusses the utility of tweeting, particularly as his conference papers might be almost ready to be published. Mine seldom are: they are usually highly speculative, sometimes deliberately polemical to garner response, often quite embryonic and seeking feedback. Should I cease that type of early research presentation? Such work is not ready for (written, permanent) publication--nowhere near, in fact. If it isn't ready for that, then is it really a viable tweet-hoard?